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2011 Ford Fiesta Hatchback SE Review
The cure for small car syndrome
By Derek Kreindler, Photography by Ford, Jun. 01, 2011

Small European cars have a history of not living up to the hype once they make the journey across the pond to North America. Car enthusiasts took delight when Saturn announced that it would be selling the Opel Astra as one of their own vehicles.

FAST FACTS

1. Making 120-hp from a 1.6L 4-cylidner the Fiesta is rated at 30/40-mpg for the automatic and 29/38-mpg for the manual.

2. Cargo room is 10.4 cu-ft of trunk space or 34.6 cu-ft total.

3. Hatchback models start at $15,120 while sedan models begin at a much lower $13,320. A mid-level SE hatchback with an automatic transmission costs $16,595.

The public didn’t respond with any sort of enthusiasm, since the last generation Ford Focus, exponentially outsold it, sometimes by a 25:1 ratio, and the higher sticker price didn’t help matters in a segment where buyers are more interested in value for money than handling or performance.

Most automakers would be gun-shy about following in GM’s footsteps after witnessing the utter failure of the Astra, but for whatever reason, Ford felt it was prudent to bring their Fiesta subcompact to the United States, after a long and successful run in Europe, where cars the size of basketball shoes are a necessity due to high fuel prices and a lack of physical space.

For American consumers, a subcompact is a Scarlet Letter, denoting poor credit, limited financial means or a world-view more aligned with socialism than freedom. We really hope the Fiesta smashes these notions, since it’s one of the few cars that we can wholeheartedly say is worth your money.

AutoGuide has been fortunate enough to have prior access to the Fiesta, both on the first drive event in the Bay Area, and some seat time in the European market version back in 2009. On both occasions, we came away impressed with the car, but our week with the Fiesta was a chance to put it to the test in everyday situations outside of the gaze of Ford’s PR staff.

EFFICIENT BUT FUN

The Fiesta is undoubtedly in its element in urban environments, with its small footprint lending it well to squeezing into tight parking spaces, gaps in gridlocked traffic and quick U-Turns on busy arterial roads. Ken Block’s Gymkhana videos with his own Fiesta rally car may be a masterpiece of editing and trick camera angles, but the Fiesta really does feel that nimble, while exhibiting few of the typical subcompact foibles, like excessive engine noise (though a mechanical soundtrack is definitely present) or poor build quality. The car has a solid feel, without coming off as too hefty, while the steering properly communicates what the front tires are doing.

With only 120 horsepower from its 1.6L 4-cylinder, the Fiesta is what some politely call a “momentum car” meaning that you must keep the accelerator pinned at all times, lest you lose any of the precious speed you’ve already built up. Our test car, a mid-level SE model, was equipped with Ford’s new PowerShift Automatic transmission, which is actually a dual-clutch style gearbox similar to (but not exactly like) Volkswagen’s DSG system. What separates the two gearboxes is Ford’s attempt at making the PowerShift as close to an automatic as possible. While there’s no paddle option for sport-oriented drivers, the PowerShift really is the best of both worlds, with all the smoothness of an automatic, while retaining the fuel economy advantages associated with a manual transmission (Ford estimates 30 mpg in the city and 40 mpg highway). We did notice that the Fiesta took a second or two to creep away from stoplights, as a real manual would, but most buyers won’t pick up on that sort of thing.

CABIN WELL-APPOINTED AND DESIGNED, BUT DEFINITELY SUB-COMPACT

Spending time in the interior is the biggest indicator of Ford’s intentions with the Fiesta, specifically its attempt to position the car as a more upscale alternative for younger buyers. The dashboard, steering wheel and other surfaces are finished in plastics that are much better than most compacts, and the design of the buttons, steering wheel and other tactile surfaces looks like they actually had a fair amount of effort in them. Stereo controls are large and clearly labeled, while the lock button for the doors is centrally mounted on stack. These may seem like minor details, but they’re a nice ergonomic touch that will go a long way towards endearing potential customers. Equipment, even on the SE, is generous, with the aforementioned power locks, windows, mirrors, as well as Ford’s SYNC system with Bluetooth capability, SIRUS satellite radio, an iPod connector and air-conditioning.

Five basketball players may not find the Fiesta too spacious, but for normal adults, short trips across town will be bearable. Likewise with respect to cargo, a flat screen TV may require the rear seats to be folded down, but a week’s worth of groceries for two will fit in the small but livable rear compartment. Unfortunately, Ford had to cut corners somewhere, and we were less than impressed with some of the materials, like the headliner and the seat fabric, which is a somewhat coarse cloth that feels like canvas to the touch.

PERFECT IN TOWN, LESS SO ON THE OPEN ROAD

On the road, the Fiesta feels light on its feet, with well-weighted steering and a well-tuned suspension making the car a wonderful commuter. Rather than the buzzy, tin-box feel of other subcompacts, the Fiesta allows the driver to zip in and out of gaps in traffic. Large potholes and frost heaves are soaked up well, and after a few minutes of darting in and out of traffic, you begin to question why anything bigger than a Fiesta is necessary for the daily grind.

On the highway, things get a little dicer, as road, wind and engine noise become more apparent, and the lack of power makes passing other cars a challenge. Fortunately, the brakes hold up well in both arenas, and we liked the progressive yet strong nature of the brakes when we were unfortunately had to test them out to their fullest potential.

THE VERDICT

Our test car, equipped with the Rapid Spec 201A (which is required to get Sirius Radio on the SE model) cost $17,985 when all is said and done – a fairly hefty amount for a subcompact hatchback. We can understand why some buyers would shy away from laying out this kind of coin for a Fiesta, but the car really is more than the sum of its parts, offering a premium compact suite of features in a subcompact wrapper that looks a whole lot better than the rest of the competition. For those who do a lot of urban driving and aspire to more than a Yaris, we can wholeheartedly recommend the Fiesta as a solid choice in this segment.

LOVE IT
  • Nimble handling
  • Innovative dual clutch gearbox
  • Miserly fuel consumption
LEAVE IT
  • Not so rapid on the highway
  • Pricey for a subcompact
  • Might be a size too small for most North Americans

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